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The Highs and Lows From the 2016 Oscars

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By Kevin Polowy and Ethan Alter

Chris Rock lived up to the hype as the right man for the job in a very, um, interesting year at the Oscars; Leonardo DiCaprio finally won that Oscar; and Spotlight prevailed in a tight race for Best Picture. There were plenty of great moments during the 88th Academy Awards, and a few doozies (see: Dash, Stacey). Here are the highs and lows from the 2016 Oscars. (Watch our video about it above.)

HIGH: Rock Diversifies Oscar Contenders
Whoopi Goldberg mopped up in Joy. Leslie Jones played the bear in The Revenant. Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig argued over whether they should spend “2,500 white dollars” to save Rock’s “black astronaut” in a Martian sendup. But the best vignette in Rock’s bit where he inserted black actors into lily-white Oscar movies came when a dress-sporting Tracy Morgan tried to seductively eat a Danish in front of Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl.

HIGH: Rock’s Opening Monologue
Anticipation for this year’s show had as much to do with how Rock would respond to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy as the awards themselves. And he came through with a blistering, riotous sermon in which he skewered both the system (the academy, Hollywood) and those who overreacted (namely, Jada Pinkett Smith). In a tour de force reminiscent of his very best standup routines, the comedian lived up to the hype and then some.

LOW: Stacey Dash Comes Out for Black History Month
Rock’s introduction of the Clueless star turned conservative mouthpiece (and outspoken opponent of Black History Month) to wish everyone a “Happy Black History Month” was ultra-brief, mercifully. But also ultra-awkward. The Twitterverse seemed, if anything, confused by the moment, an opportunity Dash seized by tweeting a post she wrote explaining her appearance. But as they say, if you have to explain a joke, it probably didn’t work.

HIGH: Gosling and Crowe, Comedy Team
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe aren’t known as Hollywood’s funniest guys, but the trailer for their upcoming crime comedy The Nice Guys surprised everyone with ample laughs from the dynamic duo. They brought their act to the Oscars, bantering amusingly on the definition of “Adapted Screenplay” (Gosling was wrong) and how many Oscars they had between the two of them (again, Gosling was wrong).

HIGH: Rock Unleashes the Girl Scouts
After noting that his daughters had a tough time selling Girl Scout cookies last year, the host brought out a whole troop to hit up the deep-pocketed attendees. And suddenly we’re seeing Steven Spielberg wave a wad of cash in the air and Matt Damon snarfing Thin Mints. It’s not quite the water-cooler moment of Ellen’s similar pizza stunt, but it made a bigger difference. Rock later announced the girls had raised over $65,000. Cha-ching!

LOW: The Thank-You Scroll & Playoff Music
The academy “helpfully” tried to keep acceptance speeches short and punchy by letting winners thank their families, co-workers, and chosen deities via a ticker at the bottom of the screen. But the effect was distracting, resembling visual clutter rather than a meaningful message. (Notable exception: Inside Out director Pete Docter’s message to his kids: “OK, yes, let’s get a dog.”) The producers also struck the wrong chord with the musical interludes. As if the orchestra’s song choices of famous movie music weren’t odd enough, the renditions often fell flat — the Muzak-y version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” played when Amy won Best Documentary Feature was particularly unsettling.

LOW: That Anticlimactic Jack Black Bit
For the most part, Rock’s comedy game was on point. But he probably should have left the Will Smith gags in the monologue. In a follow-up video bit, he enlisted Angela Bassett to pretend that she was honoring the star of Enemy of the State and Shark Tale for Black History Month. But surprise! Turns out she was talking about Jack Black. We love School of Rock and all, but Jack Black doesn’t really deserve his own history month. And Bassett definitely didn’t deserve being saddled with that leaden joke.

HIGH: Straight Into Compton
The NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was largely snubbed by the academy, but Rock found the titular Los Angeles-adjacent city the perfect location to gauge the reactions of black Americans to #OscarsSoWhite. In an inspired bit, he posed questions like, “Do you think Trumbo should have been a bigger hit?” and oftentimes his interviewees thought he was making up the film titles (Bridge of Spies? That’s not real!”) like it was a Jimmy Kimmel skit.

LOW: In Memoriam Snubs
It happens every year: A couple of film folks are left out of the academy’s tribute to those who’ve left us. Those unfortunate souls this year included two beloved character actors, Abe Vigoda (The Godfather, Look Who’s Talking) and Geoffrey Lewis (Maverick, Every Which Way but Loose), prompting a Twitter outcry, including a heartfelt message from Lewis’s actress daughter, Juliette. And lest we forget, that adorable pup Uggie from the 2012 Best Picture winner The Artist.

HIGH: Best Documentary Short Presentation Ever
With the vast majority of Americans having not seen the nominated shorts, the category is usually an afterthought to most viewers. But Louis C.K. made it must-see TV with an impassioned, hysterical plea about how important Best Documentary Short is to the otherwise unknown, not-as-wealthy nominees. “This Oscar’s going home in a Honda Civic,” said the comedian, who immediately became our pick to host the 2017 Oscars.

HIGH: Mad Max Cleans Up Tech Categories
Our hearts soared as we bore witness to Fury Road’s six Oscar triumphs in the technical categories, winning Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Film Editing. Sadly, Max and Furiosa’s ride to awards Valhalla ended there, but it was glorious while it lasted. Excuse us while we rewatch it for the 15th time.

LOW: Sly Loses
No, Adrian! Looks like Rocky Balboa is gonna remain an eternal underdog. Despite being favored to win the Best Supporting Actor statue for the role he originated 40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar hopes got KO’d by stealth Bridge of Spies winner Mark Rylance. The upset loss prompted a touching tweet from Sly’s longtime pal Arnold Schwarzenegger: “To me, you’re the best, no matter what they say.” Rylance also beat out another acting heavyweight, Mark Ruffalo, whose Spotlight performance won stellar reviews. Fortunately, he didn’t Hulk out at the news.

LOW: Chris Rock’s Awkward Asian Jokes
Rock certainly didn’t shy away from jokes about the lack of diversity at this year’s Oscars. So that’s why it was particularly disheartening that midway through the ceremony, he presented a tone-deaf, stereotype-laden gag involving a trio of Asian kids masquerading as the accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers. “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” Rock said.

HIGH: Lady Gaga’s Emotional Performance
That’s two years in a row that a live rendition of a Best Original Song nominee moved viewers to tears. In 2015, it was Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” from Selma that brought the house down. This year, after she was introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, it was Gaga who gave a stirring performance of “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground surrounded by survivors of sexual abuse.

HIGH: Leo Finally Wins
In one of the most highly anticipated — and highly predictable — sequences of the night, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Academy Award (for The Revenant) after five unsuccessful attempts. The crowd rose quickly to its feet as DiCaprio offered gracious thanks before using the moment to champion environmental issues long close to his heart. “Climate change is real,” he said. “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

HIGH: Spotlight Wins Best Picture
Spotlight won the night’s first prize — Best Original Screenplay — and then went winless over its next four nominations as we repeatedly heard Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant called to the stage. But the journalism thriller came through when it mattered, beating out both of those films (plus PGA winner The Big Short) to take home the night’s biggest prize. Michael Keaton was pumped, as was the staff of Yahoo Movies. We named Spotlight the best movie of 2015 in December.

This post has been updated since it was first published